The Legal Construction of Three Races in Early New Orleans
Author: Kenneth R. Aslakson
Publisher: NYU Press
No American city’s history better illustrates both the possibilities for alternative racial models and the role of the law in shaping racial identity than New Orleans, Louisiana, which prior to the Civil War was home to America’s most privileged community of people of African descent. In the eyes of the law, New Orleans’s free people of color did not belong to the same race as enslaved Africans and African-Americans. While slaves were “negroes,” free people of color were gens de couleur libre, creoles of color, or simply creoles. New Orleans’s creoles of color remained legally and culturally distinct from “negroes” throughout most of the nineteenth century until state mandated segregation lumped together descendants of slaves with descendants of free people of color. Much of the recent scholarship on New Orleans examines what race relations in the antebellum period looked as well as why antebellum Louisiana’s gens de couleur enjoyed rights and privileges denied to free blacks throughout most of the United States. This book, however, is less concerned with the what and why questions than with how people of color, acting within institutions of power, shaped those institutions in ways beyond their control. As its title suggests, Making Race in the Courtroom argues that race is best understood not as a category, but as a process. It seeks to demonstrate the role of free people of African-descent, interacting within the courts, in this process.
This book examines the ways in which a minority of primarily white, male, French philanthropists used their social standing and talents to improve the lives of peoples of African descent in Saint-Domingue during the crucial period of the Haitian Revolution. They went to great lengths to advocate for the application of universal human rights through political activities, academic societies, religious charity, influence on public opinion, and fraternity in the armed services. The motives for their benevolence ran the gamut from genuine altruism to the selfish pursuit of prestige, which could, on occasion, lead to political or economic benefit from aiding blacks and people of color. This book offers a view that takes into account the efforts of all peoples who worked to end slavery and establish racial equality in Saint-Domingue and challenges simplistic notions of the Haitian Revolution, which lean too heavily on an assumed strict racial divide between black and white.
In the antebellum Natchez district, in the heart of slave country, black people sued white people in all-white courtrooms. They sued to enforce the terms of their contracts, recover unpaid debts, recuperate back wages, and claim damages for assault. They sued in conflicts over property and personal status. And they often won. Based on new research conducted in courthouse basements and storage sheds in rural Mississippi and Louisiana, Kimberly Welch draws on over 1,000 examples of free and enslaved black litigants who used the courts to protect their interests and reconfigure their place in a tense society. To understand their success, Welch argues that we must understand the language that they used--the language of property, in particular--to make their claims recognizable and persuasive to others and to link their status as owner to the ideal of a free, autonomous citizen. In telling their stories, Welch reveals a previously unknown world of black legal activity, one that is consequential for understanding the long history of race, rights, and civic inclusion in America.
Dred Scott and his landmark Supreme Court case are ingrained in the national memory, but he was just one of multitudes who appealed for their freedom in courtrooms across the country. Appealing for Liberty is the most comprehensive study to give voice to these African Americans, drawing from more than 2,000 suits and from the testimony of more than 4,000 plaintiffs from the Revolutionary era to the Civil War. Through the petitions, evidence, and testimony introduced in these court proceedings, the lives of the enslaved come sharply and poignantly into focus, as do many other aspects of southern society such as the efforts to preserve and re-unite black families. This book depicts in graphic terms, the pain, suffering, fears, and trepidations of the plaintiffs while discussing the legal systemlawyers, judges, juries, and testimonythat made judgments on their "causes," as the suits were often called. Arguments for freedom were diverse: slaves brought suits claiming they had been freed in wills and deeds, were born of free mothers, were descendants of free white women or Indian women; they charged that they were illegally imported to some states or were residents of the free states and territories. Those who testified on their behalf, usually against leaders of their communities, were generally white. So too were the lawyers who took these cases, many of them men of prominence, such as Francis Scott Key. More often than not, these men were slave owners themselves-- complicating our understanding of race relations in the antebellum period. A majority of the cases examined here were not appealed, nor did they create important judicial precedent. Indeed, most of the cases ended at the county, circuit, or district court level of various southern states. Yet the narratives of both those who gained their freedom and those who failed to do so, and the issues their suits raised, shed a bold and timely light on the history of race and liberty in the "land of the free."
Being the History of the United States as Illustrated in the Lives of the Founders, Builders, and Defenders of the Republic, and of the Men and Women who are Doing the Work and Moulding the Thought of the Present Time